HAIFA, Israel― German election TV debates are usually rather dull affairs compared to those in the United States. This election, there is only one ― German Chancellor Angela Merkel apparently did not feel like doing more ― and it took place over the weekend, just three weeks before the vote. On Sunday, Merkel and rival Martin Schulz, the leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, or SPD, sparred. It was neither entertaining nor spectacular, save perhaps for one sensational piece: The SPD candidate announced that he would call for an end to European Union accession negotiations with Turkey if elected. Merkel initially stuck to her usual cautious tone on the matter, but then shifted to back an end to the talks as well. Meanwhile, Schulz seemed either intent on contradicting his party’s leadership or chose this TV debate as the moment to introduce a new decision on Turkey. The candidate consensus might herald the transformation of what is now still a spat into a frosty long-term relationship. German-Turkish relations seem to have reached their lowest point in decades.
To say that reactions in Turkey were characterized by outrage would be an understatement. But then again nowadays, this and other discourses in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, exist in a separate dimension that barely connects to the outside world. In an editorial commenting on the German TV debate, the Daily Sabah, often labeled as a mouthpiece of Erdoğan, described Germany as being caught in a “vicious cycle of racism, xenophobia and discrimination that their politicians choose to reproduce.”
Yes, racism and populism have been taking place, but mostly of Erdoğan’s making.
It is true that in the past German discussions of Turkey’s EU membership bid involved an undue amount of racist sentiments, but this is a different kettle of fish. German politicians at this point are making this explicitly and almost exclusively about Erdoğan and not about Turkey’s culture, religion or history. But the Daily Sabah and Erdoğan are caught in a galloping discourse that seems to get away from them slowly: A short while ago, Erdoğan had called all the major parties of Germany “enemies of Turkey,” and called upon German-Turkish voters to boycott them. At that point, he was careful to call them ”anti-Turkey” and not anti-Turkish. But Erdoğan’s pundits have eagerly pushed the discourse to paint German politicians and the government as anti-Turkish and thus, in their eyes, as racist. This is the perspective many Turks in Germany have been exposed to in Turkish-language newspapers and television on a daily basis for the past weeks.
One could counter the allegations of racism by stressing that German Turks, 11 of them, sit for all the major parties in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament. The Green Party even has a German-Turkish leader, and the SPD has a German-Turkish politician in its governing body. And all of them have been vocal exponents of German criticism of Erdoğan’s politics. Erdoğan viciously attacked these German-Turkish politicians in the past, and last year, he simply exclaimed “what Turks?” in a reference to them and called for blood tests to determine if they were really of Turkish origin. Cem Özdemir, co-president of the Green Party, is under constant police protection, not from German neo-Nazis but from Turkish nationalists. So yes, racism and populism have been taking place here, but mostly of Erdoğan’s making.
Germany could and should have taken a stand against Erdoğan’s destruction of Turkish democracy and freedom long before this summer.
But there is an obvious problem in the current German stance vis-à-vis Turkey ― the problem of timing. Why did this not happen earlier? It began with the arrest of a German human rights activist in July – all while a number of German Turks had been arrested before, most famously Deniz Yücel, a reporter for Die Welt, who has already spent over 200 days in prison. For the past two years, at least, there has been an endless stream of provocations, human rights abuses and outright attacks on the traditional German-Turkish friendship. From the prosecution of the “Academics for Peace” and opposition journalists to Erdoğan stepping up his general post-coup cleansing one more harsh gear after the other, Germany could and should have taken a stand against Erdoğan’s destruction of Turkish democracy and freedom long before this summer. Instead, it has mostly silently stood by ― even propping up Erdoğan’s rule through the EU-Turkey refugee deal in 2016.
It fell upon Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s foreign minister, to communicate the current position to both Turkey and the Turks in Germany. Gabriel is a leading politician of the SPD, Merkel’s coalition partner – and this is a crucial dimension of the topic. The SPD is also the party for which traditionally over two-thirds of the German-Turkish voters cast their ballot. The harsh stance vis-à-vis Erdoğan thus will hurt the SPD much more than it possibly could Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party. And now, apparently, Schulz felt the SPD had to follow Merkel, who has called for an end to accession negotiations on multiple previous occasions. This is another blow to the SPD’s German-Turkish voter base; it makes it near impossible for them to vote for the SPD now. And two-thirds of a million and a half voters could make a difference in these elections.
Two-thirds of a million and a half voters -- German Turks -- could make a difference in these elections.
The German Turks rarely had it easy in Germany. After so many demeaning debates over the last decades about guest workers, asylum seekers, the EU-Turkey talks, parallel societies, Islam, Islam, and again, Islam, the last thing they needed was to be dragged into this election campaign.
If the timing of the current spat was indeed calculated on Merkel’s part in order to hurt her coalition partner, the SPD, then Erdoğan’s allegations about populism have a kernel of truth in them. A “truth” he helped create by pushing Germany as much as he possibly could. And if the timing of the current spat was a calculated move on Merkel’s part, then she has signaled to German-Turkish voters that they are politically expendable. But if Merkel has been able to endure so many human rights abuses and anti-German moves by Erdoğan for so long, she could have waited another two months. Either way, Merkel ― and also Schulz ― need to find better ways to communicate with the Turks in Germany and work harder to integrate them in the political process, perhaps even again in these very same elections. If they don’t, it will be difficult to simply shrug off Erdoğan’s allegations in the future. For him, too, the German Turks seem to be expendable ― and a good external enemy makes for domestic consolidation. If the election debate is any indication, Germany could be dealing Erdoğan a winning hand.